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Column: A house for more than court

Posted: September 2, 2018 2:19 p.m.
Updated: September 4, 2018 1:00 a.m.

During the 1930s, I remember hearing my father, who was born in 1892, sometimes say he was going to Chesterfield courthouse. Being about 10 years old at the time, I just assumed he had gone to the courthouse in the town for some business. I was to learn, many years later, he meant something entirely different. He was going to the town that had been named Chesterfield C.H., S.C., in the past.

When counties were formed in South Carolina, a town in the county was designated as the location for the courthouse. In many cases postal authorities added the word “Court House” or the initials “C.H.” to the town name. For example, Sumter C.H., S.C. was the postmark for the town.

In the antebellum period, 20 towns in South Carolina had the initials, “C.H.” as a part of their name. Citizens used those initials when writing or talking about their town. Mapmakers also employed this usage. This practice continued after the Civil War until the 1890s for 16 towns. Edgefield C.H., S.C. was the lone exception. By 1903, the C.H. had been dropped by that town.

For just a brief time, Camden’s name in official postal records in Washington was Camden C.H., S.C., but I have never seen an example of that usage. Perhaps one will still surface. If so, it likely will date in the Camden District period, 1769-1785. That district included nine present-day counties stretching from the Congaree River to the North Carolina line.

The Camden District courthouse was burned in 1779 by people believed to have been Tories. Court records from 1771-1779 were destroyed for the Camden District which included present day Kershaw County. That courthouse was located on Broad Street where the Robert Mills courthouse stands today.

When the Kershaw District was created in 1791, a courthouse was constructed on the site where the Robert Mills courthouse would be constructed in 1826. That courthouse would serve the district/county until 1906. A courthouse was constructed that year on Broad Street where the present courthouse stands. That courthouse served the county until 1968, when the present courthouse replaced it. From 1771 to the present, five court buildings were located at the Robert Mills courthouse site and the present courthouse site.

In addition to the courtroom, most courthouses contained other county offices, typically clerk of court, probate judge, auditor, treasurer, coroner, and sheriff. The idea was to have one location where citizens could conduct most of their business with the county. The county jail was usually located in another building.

Until after WWII, most counties in South Carolina were rural and the county seats were relatively small. As time passed, the amount of business in many counties expanded to the point where additional buildings besides the courthouse had to be constructed for the offices of many of these county officials. Today many counties only have the court room, the clerk of court’s office and perhaps the probate judge’s office in the courthouse.

From the first courthouse in 1771 to the present one, county courthouses occasionally have been used for purposes other than county business. The Inabinets recorded this event in their county history.

“…Richard Furman was scheduled to preach in the courthouse, where itinerant preachers often had spoken since the public building had been erected. When asked for the key to the building, the sheriff refused to surrender it, stating that the young Baptist from the High Hills of the Santee was not a member of the Church of England. An angered crowd offered to break down the door, but Furman declined and led the people a short distance away, where he spoke in the outdoors. His calm and forceful speech won him adherents that day, after which the courthouse was never again denied him.”

In 1792, a Charleston newspaper carried a story about a large dinner and party in the courthouse in Camden. This likely was not county business.

In the 1790s, James Kershaw indicated the courthouse served as a community theater as well as a church building and the seat of justice. Kershaw was active in the arts as an actor, attender at dramatic performances and a member of the St. Cecelia Society.

In 1805, a meeting was held in the courthouse to organize the Bethesda Presbyterian Church. The church building they constructed then was near the Quaker Cemetery and not the church on DeKalb Street today.

Isaac B. Alexander of Camden and Dr. Adam Libolt operated a photographic gallery in Columbia in December 1842. By March 1843, Alexander produced “Photographic Miniatures” in Camden from a room in the courthouse.

On various occasions over the years, courthouses and other county buildings have been used by non-governmental groups. For example, a few years ago, I attended an unveiling of a portrait of the late Sen. Donald H. Holland in the Kershaw County courthouse. During the past 10 years, the Kershaw County Historical Society has conducted two programs in the county office building across Broad Street from the courthouse.

After the Robert Mills courthouse ceased to be used for court purposes in 1906, it was given to the Hobkirk Hill Chapter of the DAR, who used it for activities and events they sponsored. They returned it to the county in 1933. In 1935, the Kershaw Lodge of Ancient and Free Masons purchased it. The Kershaw County Chamber of Commerce & Visitors purchased the courthouse in 1999 and it became their center. It has been renovated according to State Archives and History and nationally approved standards.

The courthouses in Camden over the years were landmarks used by many to give directions in town. Often used were such phrases as, “two doors from the courthouse,” “across the street from the courthouse,” “next door to the courthouse,” etc.

For more than 250 years, much of Camden and Kershaw County’s history has unfolded along two miles of Broad Street, from Historic Camden to Hobkirk Hill. From these two sites of the five courthouses on Broad Street, one could have witnessed a large percentage of town and county history. Significant history also occurred within these courthouses, the governmental and symbolic “nerve center” of the county. When travelling Broad Street, I often ponder these matters.

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